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The Fine Art of Parenting an Athlete: 10 Takeaways From the Tokyo Olympics

by Kristie Helfrich


Co-written with Margie Foster-Cunningham, who is entering her 37th season as head coach of the George Washington University Gymnastics Team and who coached Kristie Helfrich.

As the sun sets on yet another inspiring Olympic Games, it’s time to reflect on the breakout performances (Molly Seidel, Athing Mu), incredible success/longevity in sport (Alison Felix, Sue Bird & Katie Ledecky), touching acts of sportsmanship (G. Tamberi & M. Barshim) and unexpected challenges (Simone Biles) of these amazing athletes.  As a former gymnast and now a parent of athletes, the plight of Simone has touched me deeply.  The Olympics is a time for gymnastics to shine on the world’s stage, however, the spotlight shifted from athletic prowess/dominance to the importance of the overall well-being of athletes.  This made me think about the unique needs of athletes – physical, mental, and emotional – and the role that coaches, parents, and teammates play in helping achieve the necessary balance to compete at the highest level. 

As a parent do I have the right approach?  Am I doing enough?  Or too much? How can I help my kids navigate the inevitable highs and lows and intense pressure to perform without losing the joy of the sport?  I maintain a tremendous friendship with my collegiate gymnastics coach, Margie Foster-Cunningham, who is entering her 37th season as head coach of the George Washington University Team so I decided to get her take on how to use this as a learning experience in supporting athletes.  Out of our animated conversation emerged some themes worth sharing:

  • Practice resilience – Things will get hard. All athletes will struggle at times. Their body will hurt and mentally they may need a break – this is when they need you to lift them up.  It will not be easy, but athletes must persevere and we as parents, coaches, teammates, and friends need to give them the space and encouragement they need to get back to their sport.  A big part of this is having the mental fortitude to recover from poor performance, injury, or setback.  Make sure you are asking the right question – so you had a bad day, game, or play - so what, what’s next?  Follow their cues and do what you can to support their comeback. 

  • Steer away from perfection as the goal – Expectations placed on athletes are extraordinary. Our results-oriented society places emphasis on superhuman achievements, record-breaking races or being the "GOAT", failing to remember that athletes are, in fact, human.  The pressure to achieve perfection is too big of a burden for anyone to bear so focus on achievable, realistic goals and the satisfaction of accomplishing just that - because that is enough.
  • Help them to enjoy the journey - The quest to become an elite athlete is the ultimate grind. Individuals need to learn to strive, win, work, fail, work harder, REPEAT.  While every day, practice, or competition might not be fun or ideal, it’s important that the joy and passion for the sport are not lost.  Remember your role as a parent, find the good, focus on the positive and keep them moving towards their goals.

  • Teach them how to be a good teammate - Being a good teammate makes you a better athlete and ultimately raises the level of your team. Focus cannot solely be on individual performance and success. Energy must be reserved to encourage and cheer for others.  Remind your athlete to find joy through the success of others.

  • Set boundaries for yourself – Remember your job as a parent is to provide your athlete with the tools they need to succeed, and the rest is up to them. With countless hours spent driving to/from trainings and competitions (“windshield time”), the focus on providing the proper amount of food and rest, and the energy, effort, and commitment that is required from the entire family, it is easy to become consumed by your athlete’s success. You must keep all of this in perspective without losing yourself, living vicariously through their performances, and also make certain the focus remains on the athlete – it is not about YOU. Relish your role as the ultimate cheerleader.   

  • Engage in open and honest conversations – Encourage your athlete to talk about games and practices, interactions with coaches and teammates, current fears, and long-term goals, etc. But avoid the dreaded PGA (post game analysis).  Use your “windshield time” to build a relationship with your athlete allowing them to feel comfortable sharing their feelings with you.  Allow them a safe space to vent following a loss, lack of playing time or poor play, without reaction.  Ask open ended questions. Healthy conversations focus on things your athlete can control including their attitude, work rate, and positive sideline behavior – they need to know that you feel pride in them and their efforts.

  • Establish an attitude of “I’m Awesome” – A large part of being great starts from within and believing that you can do/be/achieve anything. Confidence leads to success and success breeds confidence - it’s a symbiotic relationship.  So, fill their emotional tank to give them fuel for their fire by celebrating their awesomeness every chance you get.  Make sure they believe in themselves and can confidently say, "I’m awesome."

  • Strike the right balance – Maintaining balance in all facets of life is something we all strive for; however, it is even more important for athletes to maintain a healthy physical, mental, and emotional state of being. We expect athletes to push themselves to excel and perform at the highest level while simultaneously knowing their limits.  This is an ongoing challenge requiring physical and mental agility.  Help your athlete determine what balance means/looks like to them. 

  • Show them unconditional love – No matter the outcome, they will need your support and love. The wins are simple to support. But the losses, the injuries, or the missed penalty kick, that is when they need you and their entire support network the most.  The uncertainty of sport is what makes it so exciting, so as a parent be ready to step up when they need you the most and be ready for anything. 

SGP Winners in Life (img)

Second-Goal Parent®: Developing Winners in Life Through Sports

Top coaches and athletes train youth sports parents to focus on helping their children process the life lessons uniquely available through sports. This highly interactive workshop provides specific tips and techniques for parents to use in talking with their children on game day, developing a productive parent – coach relationship, and becoming effective and positive supporters in the stands.

Nelson Mandela said, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”  Sports allow athletes the opportunity to practice the art of the comeback.  Recovering from challenges along the way enables athletes to develop coping skills and the resilience necessary to become strong, future leaders with positive mindsets. Simone Biles’ bronze medal performance on the balance beam was the ultimate comeback.  Behind this achievement was countless hours of practice, incredible fortitude, and unmatched strength coupled with the amazingly positive support of her coach, family, teammates, and loved ones.

Positive parents and coaches guide growth through sport. Your role as parent is both simple and complex – it’s a fine art, a skill.  Like any skill, it requires lots of practice, constant refinement, and ongoing development.  Don’t waste your “windshield time”, it truly is a gift so use it wisely and like your athlete – keep practicing!

In addition to serving as Chairperson of the Mid-Atlantic Positive Coaching Alliance Board, Kristie is the COO for The Benchmarking Company, a woman-owned market research firm focused on beauty and personal care products.  More than 20 years ago, Kristie competed for the George Washington University Gymnastics team in DC where she met her husband, Dan, a Georgetown University soccer player. Currently, she and Dan have the privilege of raising four amazing athletes - Kaitlyn, Matty, Carrie & Tommy - and our greatest joy is watching them play. When she is not driving carpool or watching sports, Kristie enjoys working out, binging Netflix, and cooking for family & friends.